Liv is dead

To read the original Swedish version, click here.

Anya drove as fast as possible on the damaged road with deep tracks and eroded edges that led to “the Den”, as the civilians called the building that once served as dining hall and administration centre for a steel mill. She glanced at Liam in the passenger seat while hauling up the cell phone from her pocket. He was leaning his head against the window, eyes closed. She hoped he was only sleeping. The hand he had held to the bandage around his stomach and the wound under it had fell down in his lap, and there was fresh blood on it. The hunt for food in the mostly blown up city center had given them anything but food.

She reached out with her hand as the ringback tone sounded and shook his shoulder gently. “Liam, are you awake?”

He inhaled, looking up. “Yeah…”

“That’s good. Keep it up.” He was too pale.

“Hello?” she heard Ina’s voice in the other end, distorted and cut up. They had hacked into the mobile phone network but when noone was maintaining it, you had to be happy for what you got.

“Is it 2358?” Anya asked. It wasn’t asking about Ina’s number, it was asking if it was safe to talk.

“No, it’s 1392”, Ina answered, confirming it was.

“We’re there soon.”

“How is he?”

“Well, what the hell do you think, he’s shot in his stomach.”

“Circulatory collapse?”

Anya looked at Liam again. He had sunk back against the window, but at least his eyes were open now.

“It won’t be long at least”, she answered. “Did Liv and Loneh come back yet?” The two had headed for the other end of the city.

“Let’s talk about that when…” Ina fell silent.

No, Anya thought. No. “Take it now”, she said.

“Loneh’s here. Liv is dead.”

“Liv’s dead”, Anya repeated, and gave a quiet laughter. That sounded ridiculous. Then her chest began to shrink. “What…?” she said, her voice so thin all of a sudden. Her body got it. A scream of thorny darkness spread from the pit of her stomach and tightened around her throat. But the brain didn’t get it.

“A wall collapsed and she was crushed to death.” Ina sounded reluctant.

The field of vision narrowed. Everything outside the grey concrete with its potholes and torn off chunks disappeared and it wasn’t until she had to dodge the large pit that was eating its way through the road one kilometer before the guards that she realized that Ina was trying to talk to her and that she had accelerated considerably. She slowed down, met Liam’s gaze, and pressed her thumbnails into her index fingers so the tears would stay in her eyes.

“Yeah, I’m still here”, she said, answering Ina’s question. Her voice was cold. Dead. But she could break down later. Liam was still alive.

“We’re there soon. I’m hanging up.”

 

After being checked by Elvin and Mark, who were guarding at the fence around the complex, she could finally park the car at the entrance to the Den. She had to wake Liam up again, he hadn’t been able to stay awake, and she had completely forgotten about him for a while.

“Can you walk?”

He didn’t answer, but nodded some at least, and was apparently preparing to get out of the car. That was good. If he thought he could walk on his own she would let him do it. The civilians here looked up to them, the soldiers, the guardians. The less weaknesses they showed, the better.

Anya walked around the car and took a gentle hold around his arms. Ina met them, holding up the door and looked around the steel mill searchingly as if expecting an assault. They had been fine so far, but the lesson they had learned at their previous hideout was still fresh in all their minds.

“Is the bullet still there?” Ina asked as they led Liam through the corridor, past the big room where the civilians gathered at daytime when they weren’t occupied with maintenance of the Den, and to the smaller room that used to be offices but now served as hospital, storage rooms, bedrooms.

“No, it went through.”

“Are you sure?” They helped Liam lie down on the table that was Ina’s makeshift operating table. He moaned with pain when he was forced to use the injured muscles.

“One shot, two holes.”

The shooter had turned up from behind a burned out bus, aimed at them without a word, and they had raised their hands in the air, distrustfully, since it every existing radio channel announced at least once per hour that the three week long ceasefire was still in effect. Of course Anya and Liam hadn’t been unarmed, but they had carried their weapons on their backs, not even touching them, showed all signs of peaceful intentions. Then the shot had been fired. Anya had almost grabbed her own weapons to shoot that asshole, but Liam’s shaky “The hell…” had made her shift focus.

“Get outside now”, Ina said, “and when Aidin comes back you keep him away, understood?”

Anya nodded. Outside she met Ina’s assistant, Zack, who went inside to help Ina with Liam, and Loneh. Loneh who had been with Liv when she was killed.

She didn’t want to see Loneh. She didn’t want to see anyone at all. But Loneh probably had to talk to her. Say that she tried but that there had been nothing to do. She had to say it, Anya got that much, to get some of the guilt off her shoulders. She’d been in the same situation herself. Maybe Anya herself would have to explain to Aidin in a couple of hours that she had done everything she could too, but that it hadn’t been enough?

Loneh looked at her as if she was scared.

“What happened?” Anya asked, not that she really wanted to know, but so Loneh would start speaking so they could have that over and done with. She barely listened. She picked up the essential. There was no doubt that Liv had died under the collapsed wall, and that it had been a quick death. She was still there, Loneh told Anya, she hadn’t been able to dig her free and didn’t dare to stay for long. Lucky her, Anya though, or she might have got a bullet in the stomach too.

“I’m sorry”, Loneh said. Again. She had already said it three times. For what? Was she responsible for every damn wall that any of her friends happened to stand close too?

“It wasn’t your fault”, Anya answered, it was what Loneh needed to hear. Anya herself needed to punch her and shout at her how fucking stupid she had been who hadn’t looked after Liv better. Liv, who had been the oldest among them and served the longest in this temporary defence troop that once had been part of a Home Guard unit, which had lost its structure and been spread out like gnawed clean fruit cores. Some had managed to grow strong, others had rotten away. Their own group had remained strong thanks to Liv.

Then Zack came out and told Loneh to come with, she and Liam had the same blood type and he needed her blood now. Anya was grateful to be interrupted.

There was a cubby hole on the next floor that was unused. She went there, closed the door and sank down against the wall, huddled. If there was anything this war had taught her, it was to cry silently. That didn’t mean she cried calm and still. She screamed without vocal cords and grabbed her hair and clenched her fists so hard she might as well pull the hair off, the soundless sobbing shaking her whole body.

Eventually she had to take control over the crying, but she was still sobbing when the door suddenly opened and a little girl stood in the opening and looked at her with big eyes.

“Are you sad?” she asked.

Anya nodded. She had no energy to pretend. It was too late anyway.

“Yeah, I’m sad.”

“Why?”

“Because my best friend ever died today.” Her voice disappeared at the end, smothered by grief.

“Poor her.”

Anya nodded.

“Are you burying her in the lawn then?”

“Yeah. Eventually.” If there’s anything to bury when I get there, she thought, but it was unnecessary to complicate things.

The girl didn’t seem to come up with more things to say.

“What were you doing here?” Anya asked.

“We were going to play hide-and-seek.”

Anya stood up and wiped her face with her palms. “You’re not supposed to be up here and play, you should be where we can see you.”

“Then you can’t be here either.”

“No. I’m going downstairs too now.”

“Did you need to be left alone?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay.”

God, kids were so easy sometimes. She ruffled the girl’s short black hair and followed her downstairs. She was filled with anger when she saw the burnmark the girl had at the back of her neck. It was old now, but still a wound caused by a bunch of nation leaders’ inability to act more civilized than this kid when she fought with her friends about ragdolls and wood blocks.

In the corridor below was Loneh, Zack and Aidin, and she heard Aidin’s voice long before she came within sight.

“…stay for hours but she can’t even talk to me five minutes without asking me to go to hell!”

“When she stitched him up you can go in ther, and this is the last time I’m telling you this”, Zack said sternly. “It was a whole other thing with Ella and her son, and you have to understand that.” Zack went into the hospital room again, but had time to cast an accusing glare at Anya. As if it was her fault that Aidin was mad.

Then she remembered that she had practically promised Ina to keep Aidin away from there. He had one weakness and that was Liam. Ina would have had to sedate Aidin too if he was to be in the room with them.

Without a word she grabbed his arm and dragged him off to the dining hall. In there it was murky as usual, decorative oil burners the only sources of light. What little electricity the spare generators produced – when they worked – was used for fridges and hot water, for lighting only in emergencies. Ina had proper lighting in her rooms, of course. The oil lasted long in the burners, and since the windows were covered they needed light in there.

Some people were in there, a few children playing a board game in a corner, a couple of adults conversing with low voices, yet another few people just sat there, staring emptily at nothing. There was always a subdued mood in here, except when it was radio time. Then it got thick with tension.

Aidin of course hadn’t been quiet one second on the way here. He was the only one except Liv who never let his voice be affected, who always spoke straight and clear, never husehd. But when they stepped inside the dining hall, Anya had silenced his anger over Ina’s unfair treatment with a short “Let it go”. They were the soldiers. Masks on.

And he had let it go. But Aidin rarely let things go for long.

Several years ago they could have had a cup of coffee, maybe treat themselves to a cupcake, but in this dining hall, edible things were only prepared twice a day, and nowadays it was usually canned food and grains. But they still sat down at one of the battered and worn-out tables, taking a sip from their water bottles. The instinct to drink together hadn’t left them, despite that none of them had been drinking neither coffee nor tea or alcohol in ages.

Now that Aidin lowered the bottle and inhaled to start talking again, Anya interrupted him in time.

“Do you know that Liv is dead?”

He lost momentum there, you could tell. Then he said: “Yes, I know. What, you don’t think I care? But you know what, Liam’s still fighting for his life, so I’m sorry if I’m not up for crying my eyes out over Liv right now.”

“Mm. You know, I’m kind of thinking the same. Only the opposite. At least Liam’s still alive.”

They looked at each other, silently, both of them equally angry and hurt. Loneh shifted uncomfortably beside them.

“Ina’s fighting for Liam’s life too”, she said, quietly.

Aidin sighed and leaned back in his chair with his face buried in his hands. Anya felt the tears burn behind her eyelids and pressed her knuckles against her lips, pretending to only be leaning on it.

“Okay, I’m not going to compete with you on who’s feeling worst, Aidin”, she said after a while, “I’m just so damn…” There was no reason to try to find the right word, whichever they filled in would be as fitting. Tired, sad, mournful, dejected, angry…

One of the civilians put the radio up on the counter where the food used to be served. It was time for evening broadcast. Public service were still broadcasting, if very limited. At least they got the most important news. Sometimes you could tune in foreign broadcasts, transmitted from pirate stations. They had access to internet at the beginning, but a virus had ruined all the computers at the Den a couple of months ago.

The national anthem was played. That one and other songs that possibly could put the people in a better mood used to play when no other broadcasts were on. When it ended this time, there wasn’t the usual phrase of greeting from the radio host, but someone who shouted out a few words that Anya first couldn’t wrap her head around.

“We have peace! A peace treaty has been signed and enemy forces are expected to withdraw without further delay. Once again, we have peace!”

A few gasps were heard from the people in the room. Several began to cry, most of them laughing at the same time, some hugged each other tightly, others just sat quiet and looked at each other. The radio host continued to inform about the treaty details, but Anya weren’t listening. She and her siblings in arms looked at each other, silently, without moving, until Loneh took their hands and they united in some kind of embrace around the table. Tears were running down Anya’s cheeks, and she heard Loneh and Aidin start laughing that kind of laugh that is equal part crying.

Someone began to remove the window bars, but then Anya stood up.

“Leave them for now. It’ll take a while before all the enemy units get what this is about.” It killed some of the joy, she could tell, but she wasn’t letting more people die, not now.

Peace. A strange word. They had been waiting to hear it so long now that it wasn’t possible to understand it completely now they finally got it. What did it really mean? Would the UN and Red Cross be outside with flowers and marching bands and medics if she opened the door now? Would they go back to their homes, finding them repaired and repainted? Everything was ruined, wasn’t it? Liv was dead. The only thing that would be different was that they wouldn’t have to be afraid of being shot to death by enemies. But who else of their own would decide to shoot you only because you happened to be looking for canned food in an abandoned shopping center…?

The rest of the night, everyone found it hard to focus on anything at all. People were singing and dancing one minute, in the next someone held a quiet memorial speech or told a story from the war that had been, sometimes they all sat in silence, thinking or crying.

Aidin was sitting with Liam, who still hadn’t woken up but that they had all helped moving to the soldiers’ sleeping quarters. Ina and Zack were having a well deserved pause to eat and digest the news of the peace treaty.

Anya and Loneh had gone out to Elvin and Mark, who were on guard duty, early to tell the news, and after the scarce dinner on tomato pulp and some kind of soup that the kitchen staff for the night had heated up, they went to release the two for the night. Anya didn’t trust that it was safe, no matter how many peace treaties that had been signed.

Since they were two man short, they had decided to split the night in two guard shifts instead of three, and let Aidin stay with Liam. Not even Ina could stay awake 24 hours a day, and if Liam would survive, she needed help. Zack already had a lot of civilians to take care of.
At three in the morning, Elvin and Mark came outside again.

“It’s so bloody crazy, I can swear it feels lighter and more beautiful here than yesterday morning”, Elvin said. He hadn’t been able to grin happily since the broadcast.

Mark only yawned and adjusted the weapon on his back. He spoke even less than Liam, but unlike Liam, Mark seemed to be quiet because he didn’t have anything clever to say, rather than holding in things noone would understand anyway. It was only Liv that Liam really had been talking to. Her and Anya. And Aidin of course, but those two spoke best on their own, it seemed.

Inside the building, they found Ina in a hushed argument with Aidin.

“There’s so little analgesics left that I can’t give him any more, I need a reserve.”

“What, until anyone gets injured for real?” Aidin’s voice were dripping in sarcasm, but it was only his way to deal with the fear.

“Liam’s in for a rough time, but he’ll make it, with your help.”

Ina had the ability to be a tough negotiator and come off as very empathic at the same time. Aidin wasn’t pleased with the answer, however, but left anyway. Ina sighed.

“How long do you think it will be before someone comes to our rescue, you think?” Loneh asked.

Ina shrugged. “I’ve never been in a war before, I have no idea. Yrsa has sent out emergency calls every day, someone should have caught them. Even if they haven’t dared to answer.”

“We have vehicles”, Anya said, “we can go to one of the cities at the coast to see if the authorities has gained control there.” Every muscle itched to leave this place. The walls were crushing her.

“Not enough to bring everyone. And then we’ll have quarrels about who gets to go and who has to stay. We also don’t know how far the fuel will take us.”

The voice of reason. Ina.

“There will be quarrels on why we’re not leaving too.”

“It’s as usual then, smile and assure them we’ll take care of them.” Loneh smirked at Anya. Anya rolled her eyes. Loneh was the skilled smiler, not she. Loneh yawned and slapped Anya’s arm gently. “We need to sleep, if we’re going to make another guarding shift in four hours.”

Inside their small makeshift dormitory, Liam was lying pale and cold sweating on the thin mat that served as mattress, and there was no doubt he was in horrible pain. Aidin sat next to him and stroke his hair, silent for a change. Anya was once again hit by the irony of it all. Liv had tripped and fell just before the finish line. Liam had crossed it, but might see the winner’s trophy being taken away from him.

She turned to the wall when tears filled her eyes again. Not that she was ashamed of them, but she didn’t want to burden the others.

 

After the morning guard shift, when they were eating their minimal daily ration of thin porridge, Anya told Loneh and Zack that she was going to take Liv back.

“You can’t do that alone”, Loneh said reluctantly.

“I don’t give a crap, I want to bury her.”

Loneh rubbed her forehead. Zack said nothing.

“The only tools we got are sledgehammers and skewers. We might just… destroy her.” Loneh looked at her plate with an unhappy look, stirring the remains of the porridge with her spoon. “It’s better to wait for help.”

“What bloody help?”

“Well, whoever gets here first. The armed forces or Red Cross or someone else.”

“She’ll be eaten by ravens and shit before that happens. I’ll take her home today.” Anya prepared to leave.

“But Anya…”

Anya slammed her palm into the table, startling both Loneh and Zack. She opened her mouth to say something, but she couldn’t find the words for it.

“Can I go pee first?” Loneh said, eventually. She stood up too with a dejected sullenness that was unusual for her. Anya understood that it would be trying on Loneh to go back to the place where Liv died for her. But at the same time she had to do it, as much as Anya had to bury Liv.

“Be careful”, Zack said. “I’m tired watching Ina stitch up intestines.”

“Yeah, we’ll be careful only for you, Zack.” Anya meant it like a joke, but it was still a relief to see Zack’s faint smile. She didn’t always manage to keep the hardness out of her voice.

 

They drove as close to the city center as they could, took their tools with them and climbed the last part of the way over collapsed buildings, car wrecks and debris. The first thing Anya saw was Liv’s foot. It was covered by dust and sticking out from under the heavy concrete slab that once had been part of the wall of a block of flats where people had lived, lulled babies, argued about tv-shows, burnt fish stews on the stove, played heroes and villains, dreamt, loved. She felt a lump of unease in the pit of her stomach, but forced herself to keep moving forward. Loneh was following her closely.

It took time. If they had had enough food, if they had been rested, then it might have gone faster. If it had been peace, they would have a whole rescue service department to help them. If it had been peace, the wall would never have fallen over Liv…

When they finally had removed enough of the concrete to pull Liv out, the energy sort of left them. Her upper body, head and face were squeezed and flattened, tried blood and dust formed a second skin on her, everything was stiff and deformed and wrong. And yet, it was Liv.

Anya was the first one to cry. Loneh put her arms around her, and she hugged back, hard, and for the first time in ages she allowed herself to use her voice when she cried. “To hell with them”, she whimpered, and stared through the tears out over the ruined city, while Loneh was sobbing in her arms. She didn’t know exactly who she meant by ‘them’, but it didn’t matter. Her accusations needed somewhere to go.

Eventually, the weep subsided at both of them. Anya didn’t want to let go, but they had to finish what they came here for. They carried Liv back to the car, something that went easier than Anya had expected since the body was still stiff. They put her in the backseat, and had to use force to bend Liv’s legs so they could close the door. After that, Loneh had to throw up.

 

They buried Liv at the same place they had buried the other people who had died during the time in the Den, a patch of grass between two of the large industry buildings. They hadn’t dared to perform any funerals outside the fence of the steelmill in case enemy soldiers or looters attacked them or the graves. When Liv’s grave was filled, they marked it with steel beams and stones, just like the others. It felt good. Not that Anya believed that a dead body would care about where it was decomposed to earth again, but she got a proper closure for herself. It made the powerlessness and anger to settle down a bit.

All the soldiers were there, even Liam was determinedly and with Aidin’s support standing there when Anya, Loneh, Elvin and Mark had helped out to put Liv down in the grave. Somehow it went without saying that Anya should say something, she who had been closest to Liv, but as usual she couldn’t find any good words for it.

“You’re the best, Liv”, she finally said. “It hurts like hell and I will always miss you, I bet all the others here will too, but as long as you were alive you were the best. Always.”

That was all she could manage, but no one seemed dissatisfied. When they all were leaving, Loneh lingered a moment, and Anya could hear her whisper “Forgive me, Liv” to the silent grave.

Anya waited for her, then they went back together. “It wasn’t your fault”, Anya said again.

“I know”, Loneh answered. She sighed. “We’ll carry her with us. It’s the best we can do, right?”

Anya nodded. “I guess it is.”

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Liv är död (Swedish)

To read the English version, click here.

Anya körde så snabbt det var möjligt på den spåriga kantfrätta vägen som ledde till “Lyan” som de civila kallade den byggnad som en gång fungerat som matsal och administrativt centrum för ett stålverk. Hon sneglade på Liam i sätet bredvid medan hon fiskade upp mobilen ur fickan. Han satt lutad mot rutan med ögonen slutna. Hon hoppades att han bara sov. Handen han hållit mot bandaget om magen och såret därunder hade fallit ner i knät, och det var nytt blod på den. Jakten på mat inne i den sönderbombade stadskärnan hade givit dem allt annat än just mat.

Hon sträckte ut handen medan signalerna gick fram, skakade lätt hans axel. “Liam, är du vaken?”

Han andades in och tittade upp. “Ja…”

“Det är bra. Fortsätt så.” Han var alldeles för blek.

“Hallå?” hörde hon Inas röst i andra änden, uppstyckad och förvrängd. De hade hackat sig in på mobilnätet men när ingen fanns som underhöll det fick man vara glad för det lilla.

“Är det 2358?” frågade Anya. Det var inte Inas nummer, utan en fråga om det var säkert att prata.

“Nej, det är 1392”, svarade hon och bekräftade därmed att det var säkert.

“Vi är snart framme.”

“Hur mår han?”

“Ja vafan tror du, han är skjuten i magen…”

“Cirkulationssvikt?”

Anya tittade på Liam igen. Han hade sjunkit tillbaka mot fönstret men ögonen var åtminstone öppna. “Det dröjer nog inte länge i alla fall,” svarade hon. “Har Liv och Lone kommit tillbaka?” De hade tagit andra änden av staden.

“Vi tar det när…” Ina tystnade.

Nej, tänkte Anya. Nej. “Ta det nu,” sa hon högt.

“Zack är här. Liv är död.”

“Liv är död,” upprepade hon, och skrattade tyst till. Det lät ju inte klokt. Sen började bröstet krympa. “Va…?” sa hon, rösten plötsligt så tunn. Kroppen fattade. Ett skrik av taggigt mörker spred sig från mellangärdet och snörde ihop halsen. Men hjärnan fattade inte.

“En vägg rasade och hon klämdes ihjäl under.” Ina lät motvillig.

Synfältet smalnade. Allt runt omkring den grå asfalten med sina gropar och losslitna bitar försvann och det var inte förrän hon var tvungen att väja för den stora grop som ätit sig in vid vägkanten en kilometer innan vakten som hon insåg att Ina försökte prata med henne och att hon ökat hastigheten avsevärt. Hon saktade ner, mötte Liams blick, och nöp in tumnaglarna i pekfingrarna så tårarna skulle stanna i ögonen.

“Ja jag är kvar,” sa hon som svar på Inas fråga. Rösten var kall. Död. Men bryta ihop kunde hon göra sen. Liam levde fortfarande. “Vi kommer snart. Jag lägger på nu.”

 

Efter att ha blivit kollade av Elvin och Mark som stod på vakt vid anläggningens stängsel kunde hon äntligen ställa bilen vid ingången till lyan. Hon fick väcka Liam igen, han hade inte fixat att hålla sig vaken och hon hade helt glömt bort honom efter en stund.

“Kan du gå?”

Han svarade inte, men nickade i alla fall lite och det märktes att han förberedde sig på att kliva ur. Det var bra. Om han trodde att han kunde gå själv skulle hon låta honom göra det. De civila här såg upp till dem, soldaterna, beskyddarna. Ju mindre svagheter de visade desto bättre.

Hon gick runt och tog ett lätt tag om hans armar. Ina mötte dem, hon höll upp dörren och spanade samtidigt ut över stålverket som om hon förväntade sig ett överfall. De hade klarat sig hittills, men läxan från förra gömstället var fortfarande färsk.

“Sitter kulan kvar?” frågade hon medan de ledde Liam genom korridoren, förbi det stora rummet där de civila samlades om dagarna när de inte var sysselsatta med driften av Lyan, och bort till de små rummen som varit kontor men nu fungerade som sjukstuga, förråd, sovrum.

“Nej, den gick igenom.”

“Är du säker?” De hjälpte Liam att lägga sig på det bord som tjänade som Inas provisoriska operationsbord. Han kved av smärta när han tvingades använda de skadade musklerna.

“Ett skott, två hål.”

Skytten hade dykt upp bakom en utbränd buss, siktat på dem utan ett ord, och de hade höjt händerna, vantroget, eftersom det matats ut säkert en gång i timmen på varenda radiokanal att vapenstillestånd rådde sedan tre veckor tillbaks. Det var klart att hon och Liam inte varit obeväpnade, men de hade burit sina vapen på ryggen, inte ens hållit i dem, visat alla tecken på att vara fredliga. Sedan hade skottet brunnit av. Anya hade varit nära att slita fram sitt eget vapen och skjuta den jäveln, men Liams skakiga “Fan…” hade fått henne att fokusera om.

“Gå ut nu, och när Aidin kommer tillbaka så håller du honom härifrån, förstått?”

Anya nickade. I dörren mötte hon Inas assistent, Zack, som fortsatte in för att hjälpa Ina med Liam, och Lone. Lone som varit med Liv när hon dödades.

Hon ville inte träffa Lone. Hon ville inte träffa någon alls. Men Lone behövde säkert prata med Anya. Säga att hon försökt men att det inte funnits något att göra. Hon måste få säga det, Anya förstod det, för att få av någon del av skuldkänslorna från axlarna. Hon hade själv varit i den situationen. Kanske skulle hon få förklara för Aidin om några timmar att hon också gjort allt hon kunnat men att det inte varit nog?
Lone såg på henne som om hon var rädd.

“Vad hände?” frågade Anya, inte för att hon egentligen ville veta utan för att Lone skulle börja prata så de fick det överstökat. Hon lyssnade knappt. Det väsentliga gick fram. Det hade inte varit någon tvekan om att Liv dött under den raserade väggen, och det hade gått fort. Hon låg fortfarande kvar, sade Lone, hon hade inte kunnat gräva loss henne och hade inte vågat stanna längre. Tur det, tänkte Anya, då kanske hon också haft ett skott i magen.

“Förlåt,” sade Lone igen. Igen. Hon hade redan sagt det tre gånger. Vad fanns att förlåta? Hade hon ansvar för varenda jävla vägg som någon av hennes vänner råkade stå nära?

“Det var inte ditt fel,” svarade Anya, det var det Lone behövde höra. Själv behövde Anya smälla till henne och skrika åt henne hur jävla dum hon varit som inte sett bättre efter Liv, Liv som varit äldst av dem och tjänstgjort längst i detta provisoriska försvar som en gång varit någon form av hemvärn men nu förlorat strukturen och spritts ut som äppelskruttar. Några lyckades växa sig starka, andra ruttnade bort. Deras egen grupp hade varit stark tack vare Liv.

Så kom Zack dit och sa att Lone måste komma med, hon och Liam hade samma blodgrupp och han behövde hennes blod nu. Anya var tacksam över att bli avbruten.

Det fanns en liten skrubb på våningen ovanför som ingen använde. Dit gick hon, stängde dörren och sjönk ner mot väggen, hopkrupen. Var det något hon hade lärt sig under kriget så var det att gråta tyst. Det betydde inte att gråten var lugn och stilla. Hon skrek utan stämband och grep så hårt om håret att det lika gärna kunde ha lossnat, snyftade ljudlöst så hela hon skakade.

Till sist måste hon få gråten under kontroll, men snyftningarna hade inte slutat när dörren plötsligt öppnades och en liten flicka stod i öppningen och tittade på henne med stora ögon.

“Är du ledsen?” frågade hon.

Anya nickade. Hon orkade inte låtsas. Det var förresten redan försent. “Ja, jag är ledsen.”

“Varför det?”

“För att min allra bästa vän dog idag.” Rösten försvann på slutet, kvävdes av mer sorg.

“Stackars henne.”

Anya nickade.

“Ska du gräva ner henne i gräset då?”

“Ja. Så småningom.” Om det finns något att gräva ner när jag väl får möjlighet, tänkte hon, men det var onödigt att komplicera saken.

Flickan såg inte ut som att hon kom på något mer att säga.

“Vad skulle du göra här?” frågade Anya.

“Vi skulle leka kurragömma.”

Anya reste sig och torkade av ansiktet. “Ni ska inte vara häruppe och leka, ni ska vara där vi kan se er.”

“Då får inte du heller vara här.”

“Nej. Jag ska också gå ner nu.”

“Behövde du vara ifred?”

“Ja.”

“Jaha.”

Gud vad det var enkelt med ungar ibland. Hon rufsade om i flickans korta svarta hår och följde efter henne ner. Hon blev arg när hon såg brännmärket flickan hade i nacken. Det var gammalt nu, men det var ändå ett sår som orsakats av en samling nationsledares oförmåga att bete sig mer civiliserat än den här ungen när hon bråkade med sina kompisar om trasdockor och träklossar.

I korridoren nedanför befann sig Lone, Zack och Aidin, och hon hörde Aidins röst långt innan hon kom inom synhåll.

“…stanna i flera timmar men mig kan hon inte ens snacka med fem minuter utan att hon ber mig dra åt helvete!”

“När hon har sytt ihop honom får du komma in och det är sista gången jag säger det nu. Det var en annan sak med Ella och hennes son och det måste du förstå.” Zack gick in i sjukrummet igen, men hann med att slänga en anklagande blick på Anya. Som om det var hennes fel att Aidin var arg. Sen kom hon ihåg att hon i princip lovat att hålla Aidin därifrån. Han hade en svaghet och det var Liam, Ina skulle behövt söva Aidin också om han skulle ha varit därinne.

Utan ett ord tog hon hans arm och drog iväg med honom bort till matsalen. Därinne var det som vanligt skumt, de enda ljuskällorna var enstaka oljelampor gjorda för dekoration. Den lilla el som reservgeneratorerna alstrade – när de funkade – användes till kylskåp och varmvatten, och bara i nödfall till ljus. Ina hade till exempel ordentliga lampor på sitt rum. Lampoljan räckte länge och fönstren var så väl förbommade att det behövdes ljus därinne.

Några människor befann sig därinne, några barn spelade ett spel i ett hörn, några vuxna samtalade lågt i ett annat, åter andra satt och stirrade tomt framför sig. Det rådde alltid en dämpad stämning här förutom när det var dags för radio. Då blev stämningen tät och spänd.

Aidin hade förstås inte hållit klaffen på hela vägen. Han var den enda förutom Liv som aldrig låtit rösten påverkas, som alltid talade rakt och tydligt, aldrig dämpat. Men när de klivit in hade Anya tystat hans ilska över Inas orättvisa behandling med ett kort “Ge dig nu.” De var soldaterna. På med masken.

Och han hade gett sig. Men Aidins tystnad varade sällan länge.

För flera år sedan hade de kunnat ta en kopp kaffe, kanske lyxat till det med en muffins, men i den här matsalen lagades ätbara saker till två gånger om dagen och nuförtiden var det mest konserver och gryn. Men de satte sig ändå vid ett av de slitna och illa medfarna borden och tog varsin klunk ur varsin vattenflaska. Instinkten att dricka ihop hade inte gått ur dem, fastän ingen av dem druckit vare sig kaffe eller te eller alkohol på evigheter.

När nu Aidin tog flaskan från munnen och drog efter andan för att sätta igång igen hann Anya avbryta honom.

“Vet du att Liv är död?”

Han kom av sig lite, det märktes. “Ja, det vet jag,” svarade han sedan. “Vadå, tror du inte att jag bryr mig om det? Men vet du, Liam kämpar fortfarande för sitt liv så förlåt om jag inte riktigt pallar med att grina över Liv just nu.”

“Mm. Vet du, jag tänker lite likadant. Fast tvärtom. Liam lever i alla fall.”

De såg på varandra under tystnad, bägge lika arga och sårade. Lone skruvade på sig bredvid dem.

“Ina kämpar också för Liams liv,” sade Lone tyst.

Aidin suckade och lutade sig tillbaka i stolen med ansiktet i händerna. Anya kände tårarna bränna i ögonen och tryckte knogen mot läppen under förevändning att hon bara lutade sig mot den. “Okej, jag tänker inte tävla om vem som mår sämst, Aidin,” sade hon sedan, “jag är bara så jävla…” Det fanns ingen anledning att försöka hitta rätt ord, vilket de själva än fyllde i skulle det ha varit rätt. Trött, ledsen, sorgsen, uppgiven, förbannad…

Borta vid disken där maten brukade ställas upp lyfte en civil fram radion. Det var dags för kvällssändning. Public service sände fortfarande, om än i väldigt begränsad form. De fick i alla fall de viktigaste nyheterna. Ibland kunde man höra utländska sändningar, vidaresända från piratstationer. De hade kommit åt internet i början, men virus hade förstört alla datorerna för några månader sedan.

Nationalsången spelades. Den och andra sånger som möjligen kunde få befolkningen på bättre humör brukade spelas när inga andra sändningar var igång. När den nu tystnade kom inte den vanliga hälsningsfrasen, utan någon ropade rakt ut några ord som Anyas huvud först inte kunde förstå.

“Det är fred! Fredsavtal har slutits och fiendestyrkor förväntas utan dröjsmål dra sig tillbaka. Återigen, det är fred!”

Spridda flämtningar hördes från människorna i rummet. Flera började gråta, de flesta skrattade samtidigt, de kramade hårt om varandra, andra satt bara tysta och såg på varandra. Radiorösten fortsatte berätta detaljer om fredsslutandet men Anya hörde inte på. Hon och hennes stridskamrater såg tyst på varandra utan att röra sig, tills Lone tog deras händer och de förenades i någon sorts omfamning där runt bordet. Tårarna rann nerför Anyas kinder, och hon hörde Lone och Aidin börja skratta den där sortens skratt som är lika mycket gråt.

Någon började ge sig på förbomningarna, men då reste sig Anya. “Låt dem sitta. Det kommer att dröja innan alla fiendestyrkor fattat vad det är frågan om.” Det tog död på lite av glädjen, det märktes, men hon tänkte inte låta fler människor dö, inte nu.

Fred. Ett märkligt ord. De hade väntat på att få höra det så länge nu att det inte gick att förstå fullt ut nu när de äntligen fått det. Vad betydde det egentligen? Skulle FN och Röda Korset stå utanför med blommor och orkestrar och sjukvårdare om hon öppnade dörren nu? Skulle de få åka hem till sina bostäder och finna dem reparerade och nymålade? Allt var ju förstört. Liv var död. Det enda som skulle vara annorlunda var att de inte skulle behöva vara rädda för att bli ihjälskjutna av fiender. Men vem mer av de egna skulle få för sig att skjuta en för att man var ute efter konserver i ett övergivet köpcentrum…?

Resten av kvällen var det svårt att fokusera på någonting alls, för alla som bodde i lyan. Än var det någon dom sjöng och dansade, än höll någon ett stillsamt minnestal eller berättade en historia från kriget som varit, än satt alla tysta och tänkte eller grät för sig själva. Aidin satt hos Liam som fortfarande inte vaknat men som de hjälpts åt att flytta till soldaternas sovutrymme, Ina och Zack tog en välbehövlig vila för att äta och smälta nyheten om fred.

Anya och Lone hade tidigt gått ut till Elvin och Mark som hade vakten och berättat nyheten, och efter att ha ätit den skrala middag på krossade tomater och någon form av soppa som kvällens köksansvariga värmt gick de ut för att lösa av vakterna inför natten. Anya litade inte på att faran var över, så fred det var.

Eftersom de var två man kort hade de bestämt sig för att lägga två vaktpass den natten istället för tre, och att låta Aidin stanna hos Liam. Inte ens Ina kunde vara vaken dygnet runt, och om Liam skulle överleva behövde hon hjälp. Zack hade redan flera av de civila att se till.

Vid tretiden kom Elvin och Mark ut igen.

“Det är fan helt knäppt, jag kan svära på att det känns ljusare och vackrare här nu än igår morse,” sade Elvin som inte tycktes ha slutat flina lyckligt ända sedan radiosändningen. Mark bara gäspade och rättade till vapnet på ryggen. Han pratade ännu mindre än vad Liam gjorde, men till skillnad från Liam tycktes Mark vara tyst för att han inte hade något vettigt att säga, snarare än han höll inne med sånt som ändå ingen skulle fatta. Det var egentligen bara Liv som Liam verkligen pratat med. Henne och Anya. Och Aidin förstås men de två pratade bäst ensamma vad det verkade.

Inne i byggnaden stod Ina och grälade dämpat med Aidin.

“Det är så lite smärtstillande kvar så jag kan inte ge honom mera, jag måste ha en reserv.”

“Vadå, tills någon blir skadad på riktigt?” Aidins röst badade i sarkasm, men det var inget annat än hans sätt att hantera rädslan.

“Det blir tufft för Liam men han kommer att fixa det, med din hjälp.”

Ina hade förmågan att både vara stenhård förhandlare och samtidigt verka empatisk. Aidin var inte nöjd med svaret men gick ändå därifrån. Ina suckade.

“Hur länge dröjer det innan någon kommer till undsättning tror du?” frågade Lone.

Ina ryckte på axlarna. “Jag har aldrig varit med om krig förut, jag har ingen aning. Yrsa har ju sänt hjälpmeddelanden varje dag, någon borde ju ha uppfattat dem. Även om de inte har vågat svara.”

“Vi har fordon,” sade Anya, “vi kan ta oss till någon av kuststäderna och se om myndigheterna fått kontroll där.” Det kliade i varenda muskel att få komma härifrån. Väggarna tryckte sönder henne.

“Inte tillräckligt många för att ta med allihop. Och då kommer det att bli bråk om vem som ska stanna. Sen vet vi inte om drivmedlet räcker heller.”

Förnuftets röst. Ina.

“Det kommer att bli bråk om varför vi inte åker också.”

“Det är väl som vanligt då, le och försäkra dem om att vi tar hand om dem.” Lone smålog mot Anya. Anya himlade med ögonen. Det var Lone som var bra på att le, inte hon.

Lone gäspade och daskade till Anya på armen. “Nu sover vi, om vi ska fixa ett pass till om fyra timmar.”

Inne i deras lilla sovsal låg Liam blek och kallsvettig på den tunna matta som tjänade som madrass, och det gick inte att undgå att han hade fruktansvärt ont. Aidin satt intill honom och strök honom över håret, tyst för en gångs skull. Anya slogs återigen av ironin i det hela. Liv hade snubblat strax innan mållinjen. Liam hade kommit över men skulle kanske få se pokalen tas ifrån honom.

Hon vände sig mot väggen när tårarna kom igen. Inte för att hon skämdes, utan för att hon inte ville tynga de andra mer.

 

Efter morgonens vaktpass, när de satt och petade i sig den dagliga minimala ransonen tunn gröt, sade Anya till Lone och Zack att hon tänkte hämta Liv.

“Det klarar du inte ensam,” sade Lone motvilligt.

“Det skiter jag i, jag vill begrava henne.”

Lone gned sig om pannan. Zack sade ingenting.

“Det enda vi har att jobba med är släggor och spett. Vi kanske bara… förstör henne.” Lone såg olyckligt ner i tallriken och rörde runt lite i grötresterna. “Det är väl bättre att vi väntar på hjälpen.”

“Vilken jävla hjälp?”

“Ja, vilka som nu hinner först. Försvaret eller Röda Korset eller någon annan.”

“Innan dess hinner hon bli uppäten av korpar och skit. Jag ska hämta hem henne idag.” Hon gjorde sig klar för att gå.

“Men Anya…”

Anya dängde handflatan i bordet så både Lone och Zack hoppade till. Hon öppnade munnen för att säga något, men hon kunde inte hitta några bra ord.

“Får jag kissa först?” sade Lone till sist. Hon reste sig också med en uppgiven surmulenhet som var ovanlig för henne. Anya förstod att det skulle bli jobbigt för Lone att gå tillbaka till platsen där Liv dött ifrån henne. Men samtidigt var hon tvungen att göra det, lika tvungen som Anya var att begrava Liv.

“Var försiktiga,” sade Zack. “Jag är trött på att se Ina sy ihop inälvor.”

“Ja, vi ska vara försiktiga enbart för din skull, Zack.” Anya menade det som ett skämt, men blev ändå lite lättad när hon såg Zacks lilla leende. Hon fixade inte alltid att hålla hårdheten ur rösten.

 

De körde så nära stadskärnan de kunde, tog sina redskap och klättrade sista biten över rasmassor, bilvrak och skräphögar. Det första hon såg var Livs fot. Den var täckt av damm och stack ut under den tunga betongplattan som en gång utgjort en del av väggen till ett hyreshus där människor bott, vyssjat barn, bråkat om tv-program, bränt vid fiskgrytor, lekt hjältar och skurkar, drömt, älskat. Hon kände en klump av obehag i magen men tvingade sig ändå att gå framåt. Lone följde henne steget efter.

Det tog tid. Om de hade haft ordentligt med mat med sig, om de varit utvilade, då kanske det hade gått fortare. Om det hade varit fred hade de haft en hel räddningskår till hjälp. Om det hade varit fred hade väggen aldrig rasat över Liv… När de till sist fått loss så mycket av betongblocket att det gick att dra fram Liv gick kraften liksom ur dem. Hennes överkropp, huvud och ansikte var hoptryckta, torkat blod och damm utgjorde en andra hud på henne, allting var stelt och deformerat och fel. Ändå var det Liv.

Anya var den första som började gråta. Lone lade armarna om henne och hon kramade tillbaka, hårt, och för första gången på mycket mycket länge tillät hon sig att använda rösten när hon grät. “Fan ta dem,” kved hon och stirrade genom tårarna tomt ut över den förstörda staden, medan Lone snyftade i hennes famn. Hon visste inte egentligen exakt vilka hon menade med “dem”, men det spelade ingen roll. Någonstans måste hennes anklagelser ta vägen.

Till sist lade sig gråten hos dem båda. Anya ville inte släppa, men de måste avsluta det de kommit hit för. De bar Liv tillbaka till bilen, något som gick lättare än Anya väntat eftersom kroppen fortfarande var stel. De lade henne i baksätet och då var de tvungna att ta i ordentligt för att böja Livs ben så att de kunde stänga dörren. Efter det var Lone tvungen att kräkas.

 

De begravde Liv på samma ställe som de andra människorna som dött under tiden de bott i Lyan, en gräsplätt mellan två av de stora industrilokalerna. De hade inte vågat genomföra begravningar utanför stålverkets stängsel ifall att fiendesoldater eller plundrare gav sig på dem eller gravarna. När graven var igenfylld märkte de ut den med stålbalkar och stenar precis som de andra. Det kändes bra. Inte för Anya trodde att en död kropp kunde bry sig om var den bröts ner till jord igen, men för att hon själv fick ett ordentligt avslut. Det fick vanmakten och ilskan att lägga sig något.

Alla soldaterna var där, till och med Liam hade sammanbitet och med Aidins stöd stått där när Anya, Lone, Elvin och Mark hjälpts åt att lägga Liv i graven. På något sätt var det underförstått att Anya borde säga något, hon som stått Liv närmast, men hon kunde som vanligt inte hitta några bra ord.

“Du är bäst Liv,” fick hon till sist ur sig. “Det gör så jävla ont nu och jag kommer alltid att sakna dig, det lär alla andra också, men så länge du levde var du bäst. Jämt.”

Det blev inte mer än så, men ingen verkade missnöjd. När de alla var på väg därifrån dröjde Lone ett ögonblick, och Anya hörde hur hon viskade ett “Förlåt Liv” till den tysta graven.

Anya väntade in Lone, sedan gick de tillsammans tillbaka. “Det var inte ditt fel,” sade Anya igen.

“Jag vet,” svarade Lone. Hon suckade. “Vi får bära henne med oss. Det är väl det bästa vi kan göra.”

Anya nickade. “Det är väl det.”

Incoming: From the drawer

I’ve been writing a lot of stuff through the years, and sometimes I stumble upon older pieces when digging through my drawers, digital as well as literal. Some of them will be published here, and they will fall under the category “From the drawer”.

Now, I haven’t found a way to make the category show on top of each post, which means that you have to scroll down to the bottom to see what category the post belongs to. This isn’t optimal, since you might start reading something you think is set in the Sci-fi-verse and then get ultimately confused since nothing makes sense or even is familiar. But it has to do for now.

That said, brace yourself for the first From the drawer-piece.

Corporal duty

“I’m not saying it’s wrong, I only…-”

“You just said it was!”

“No, I didn’t! Look…”

Haylen heard Cory’s and Felicia’s voices even before he went inside the shuttle hall with his gear. There was a couple of smaller room for weapon and armor maintenance, but the soldiers usually sat on the floor in the more spacey shuttle hall unless there were a lot of small parts involved. Haylen considered using that other room for half a second, but put his things down where the others were anyway.

The shuttle hall wasn’t very crowded this morning. The scouts and Morgan were in the workshop for technical equipment, taking care of and filling up their air tanks. Paavo was still locked up at the med bay, probably more to keep him from unnecessary use of his leg rather than actual medical surveillance, and Rashida’s concussion made it impossible for her to even turn her head without throwing up, and was ordered to rest in bed.

That left Matsuko and Mourad from team 3, who were quietly focusing on their own work, and Tianyi, who was engaged in Cory’s and Felicia’s discussion. As Haylen sat down, Cory briefly looked at him before he took a deep breath and continued to explain to Felicia and Tianyi.

“What I’m saying is, that in this galaxy, humankind is struggling. We have stillborn babies, babies born without arms or legs, babies born with flawed inner organs – the people is growing frail. This means we need as many people as possible to reproduce, to get more able people actually making it into adulthood, and to adapt quicker to life at least in this solar system. And, since it takes two components to make a baby, people should consider that when choosing a partner.”

“Oh, you think it’s our duty to have children?” said Tianyi, her usual cheeriness having a scrappy touch to it. She was brushing a legplate clean, but her ribcage was pretty sore from last day’s mission, and it was obvious she would need help eventually if she wanted to be done before lunch.

“I never said ‘duty’”, Cory objected, “I just think that sometimes people think too much about themselves as individuals instead of part of a society.”

“So if two people love each other”, Tianyi said, “and they happen to be two ciswomen, you think they’re being selfish?”

Cory shook his head dismissively. “I wish you people would stop putting words in my mouth.”

“But you’re not answering the question”, Felicia urged, sounding as angry as she looked, in tailor seat leaning forward with her hands on her knees.

Cory raised his eyebrows. “I don’t even know what the question is any longer.”

Before Felicia got to remind him, Tianyi interrupted.

“Then what is it that makes you so upset with this whole same-sex partner thing, is it the lack of baby making?”

Cory scoffed softly. “I’m not upset about anything, it’s you who are.” He gestured at them.

“Okay, okay”, Tianyi said, raising her hand, “what if I hooked up with, say… Halo’s girlfriend.”

Haylen silently looked up at her. She knew he found it annoying that she still insisted on calling Ziva his girlfriend, and she enjoyed every time she got to say it. She grinned, and continued.

“Let’s also say we found a couple of suitably equipped people to produce offspring with, then you would be all fine and dandy about two women having a romantic relation?”

“I would say”, Cory said, slowly as if weighing his words, “that you at least were thinking about our species’ survival.”

Felicia wasn’t satisfied though, and her voice was even sharper now.

“But what you said was that you don’t like to see non cis-hetero couples.”

“Again, I never said that…”

“You said, and I quote, ‘I think it’s sad’ when I told you about my cousin and her girlfriend!”

“If you’re quoting me, at least humor me enough not to leave any parts out”, Cory answered dryly. “I said it was sad that she didn’t even bother to try out a cismale partner.”

“How the hell is that not saying it’s wrong?”

“Because not all unnatural things are wrong.”

Felicia threw her head back in disbelief. “Oh my god, ‘unnatural’!? What are you, an old-earther?”

“That’s you having a weird relation to the word ‘unnatural’, not me.” Cory looked at his own two teammates with a smile, but only got uncommitted ones in return.

Tianyi started to talk before Felicia got the chance. “Is contraceptives a good kind of unnatural to you?”

Cory looked at her with a mildly impatient smile. “Your point being?”

“Well, if you were banging a nice chick and the condom broke, or your pills didn’t work, and she got pregnant – would you insist on keeping the child? No options considered?”

“And with ‘option’ you mean ‘abortion’ I take it?”

“Among other things.”

“Of course I would insist on keeping the child. If I’m fine with having sex I should be fine with having a child. That’s the main purpose of it, after all.” He said the last sentence with a meaning look at Felicia.

“What?!” Tianyi burst out in pretended astonishment. “My life is a lie…!”

Matsuko and Mourad chuckled at her, but Felicia didn’t share their amusement. “So you think Malenka was selfish and irresponsible to have that abortion?”

“I’m not going to discuss Malenka’s abortion when she’s not around, Lissy”, Cory said.

“Okay okay”, Tiany intervened eagerly, “how about this: A guy rapes me, and I get pregnant. Should I keep the child?”

Cory gave her a look. “You’re being very hypothetical now.”

“And you aren’t with all this talk about preservation of the human species and all? Answer the question.”

Tianyi’s tone had gotten sharper now too. Haylen glanced at Matsuko and Mourand, but they had their eyes mostly set on their work just like himself.

“Well”, Cory said and looked at her thoughtfully, “the child can’t help that you were raped. It’s a child no matter who’s the other parent.”

“But that other parent would never ever be a real parent, never help with the kid once it was born even if he got out of prison.”

“Not every parent lives to see their children being born either.” Cory shrugged.

“Yeah but this guy isn’t someone who planned to have a family, it’s someone who’s only after some quick fun and power play.”

“I heard you the first time you said ‘rape’, Tia, and I repeat: It’s still a child, even if it came to exist because of a rape.”

“We have laws though”, Felicia pointed out. “Legally…-”

“You don’t have to lecture me on abortion laws, Felicia”, Cory interrupted.

“Hang on, let me get this clear”, Tianyi said, “you do think that if someone rapes you, and you get pregnant, you should still keep the child.”

“If there’s no threat to your health, of course.”

“Alright.” Tianyi nodded and turned back to her work. She suddenly seemed weirdly indifferent.

Cory looked from Tianyi to Felicia, who also had picked up her chore.

“I honestly don’t understand what all the fuss here is about.”

“Really, Cory?” Felicia’s voice oozed of sarcasm as she looked up at him. “You can’t understand why someone would be offended if you called them selfish and irresponsible for doing what’s best for them and their lives?”

He gave her a somewhat teasing look. “Selfish – best for themselves. I rest my case.”

Felicia slammed her palm on the floor. “You know what I mean!”

“Maybe it’s hard to face the truth?” He shrugged. “Either way, I’m entitled my opinion.”

“And the rest of us aren’t? We’re not entitled to object when you’re spilling your sucky opinions around?”

“Of course you are, I just wish you could do so with less shouting and wild interpretation of what I’m saying.”

“How the fuck am I supposed to interpret ‘make more biological babies even if you’re gay or rape victim’ in any other way than exactly that?” Felicia stared at him. “Also, how the fuck is rapist genes helping humankind here!?” She was about to continue, but Tianyi stopped her.

“Scopes, leave it”, she said, very calmly. “He’s not worth your breath.”

Cory raised his eyebrows. “Wow. Now I’m offended. It’s one thing you don’t agree with me, Tia, you don’t have to attack my person.”

“Mourad?” Tianyi said. “If Cory ever uses the nickname ‘Tia’ when talking about me again, would you please tell him not to? It’s bad enough that his mouth gets to say my official name.”

“Very mature, Tia, very mature”, Cory said.

“You can tell him yourself Tia, oh my god…” Mourad said awkwardly despite the eyeroll.

Tianyi didn’t say anything more. Felicia got on her feet, gathered her stuff and left the docking bay. When she walked past Haylen she snarled: “Thanks for the help.”

He looked up at her, but it was too late to answer.

“Is this a womb thing?” Cory asked with a sigh. “Or a gay thing perhaps?”

“I think it’s a you-thing”, Matsuko answered calmly.

“How so, Matsuko?” Cory peered at her. “Do tell.”

She shook her head without looking up. “Because you like winding people up.”

“Do I now? I can’t really help if people get wound up by my opinions, can I?”

As Matsuko kept working in silence, Cory finally looked Haylen’s way. Haylen looked back, even if he knew he was going to regret it.

“What do you think, Haylen?”

“I get the whole society thing, don’t see the point of guilt trippin’ people for not goin’ all rabbit though.”

Cory frowned, but with that little smile still on his lips. “Guilt tripping? Is that what you think I’m doing?”

“Yeah.”

Cory shifted into a position leaning more forward and looked at Haylen, not unlike a hunter zooming in on its prey.

“In what way am I guilt tripping anyone? And, while we’re at it, for what exactly?”

Haylen looked at him silently for a few moments, but Cory waited.

“You didn’t listen to Felicia an’ Tianyi while you talked to’em?”

“Of course I did. I just didn’t hear any valid argument for their stand. I got to say, it’s rather interesting to see you all so strongly convinced I’m wrong yet you can’t explain why.”

“That you don’t understand don’t mean you be given bad arguments.”

“Trick questions and insinuations hardly count as arguments.”

For a moment Haylen was tempted to bring up the fact that he personally didn’t want to have kids at all. But he had to admit that he had stepped into the same trap as Felicia and Tianyi. Whether or not Cory liked to wind people out, he had succeeded in just that. To try and give him a serious explanation would be a waste of time and energy; Cory would be more keen on winning a word feud than actually making an effort to understand.

So instead of answering, Haylen put conditioner on a cloth and began to silently work it into the now brushed clean boot. Taking sides and defending his own had been natural as well as required in the Tyrian Tanks, but ‘sides’ had gone irrelevant when he signed up for Praesidia, and ‘his own’ had narrowed down to pretty much Ziva and himself.

With the inevitable blur of legal and moral lines that came with that kind of work for that kind of company, he had found that the least frustrating solution to situations like this was to simply shut the fuck up. If he tried to argue for himself or others, it usually only made things worse.

Still, standing idle had never felt right. That added extra bitterness to the fact that while his silence came out of resignation, Tianyi’s silence was an act of aggression.

Cory smiled, pleased with the outcome, no doubt. “If you’re out of arguments, maybe you can elaborate this rabbit thing instead?”

“Can we just drop this now?” asked Matsuko and looked at Cory tiredly.

“If you don’t like the subject, then sure”, Cory answered with exaggerated indifference.

After a couple of minutes Matsuko and Mourad started to talk about something less emotion stirring. Tianyi and Cory got involved too as if nothing happened, but Haylen noticed that Tianyi didn’t answer Cory directly even once.

Tianyi caught Haylen’s eyes to give him a brief smile, either as encouragement or a thanks for the support. He didn’t really think he deserved either.

No rest for the wicked

Someone was gently shaking his shoulder, and he slowly and reluctantly emerged from the sweet emptiness of sleep. The first sound he registered was the prio 1 mission alert, the soft ‘bim – bim – bim’ triggered the instincts to finish what he was doing and go get geared up, but there was no receiving end anywhere; his mind and his body seemed to have merged into a thick, grey pulp.

”Haylen?” At least he recognized Leon’s voice. ”Haylen, you awake?”

He rolled over halfway on his back, trying to blink his eyes open and focus. The pain in his head made him squint despite the dim light.

”You wit’ me, Haylen?”

He took a deep breath, trying to grasp reality and find his voice. ”…yeah.”

”We got a mission. I need to know if you be good to go or not. Can you sit up?”

Not until now memory caught up with him. The stress test. Migraine. Seizure. He was still in the med bay, where they had taken him earlier so he could sleep it all off. It could have been minutes ago, it could have been days. He hated this. Hated hated hated to wake up disoriented, without clear memories, no connection, hated it…

The mission alert signal finally hit a target in his brain, and his body responded. He pushed himself up into sitting, putting his feet down on the floor, inhaling deeply and pulling his shoulders up as his forehead began to pound.

”Haylen?” Leon’s hands were on his shoulders.

”…yeah?”

“Name, rank, number.”

He recited the lot of it. At least all that came to his tongue without much delay.

”We got a mission”, Leon said again, giving him a water bottle and told him to drink before he continued. ”Alpha Dawn group attacked anot’er research station, prio 1 mission. De UGS Terra sent deir teams dere already, but dey can’ handle it alone. You able to get ready an’ move out in a bit?”

Haylen took a few breaths, closing his mouth firmly to keep the water down. He felt nauseous, shaky, but he could tell that the headache was at least on the going-away-side and not the kill-you-soon-side.

”Yeah, I am…” He put the bottle away and rubbed his forehead. It was easier to talk if he kept his eyes closed. “Section E caused de seizure?”

“Don’ know yet, but it sure dragged more sand in. You won’ be usin’ dem on dis mission dough. Need more painkillers?”

“What’s de time?”

”2:14, you had last dose about seven hours ago, been sleepin’ since. You feelin’ sick?”

“Mm.”

“A’ight, drink more if you can, den go gear up. We be gettin’ food on de go, an’ two hours idlin’ on de shuttle.”

“Got it.”

The others were almost set and ready when Haylen entered the changing room. Felicia was adjusting her chestpiece, talking to Xander.

“You look as fresh as a fucking rosebud, what’s your secret? You got sleep enhancing implants?” She, as well as most of the others, was puffy-eyed and raspy due to being rallied after too few hours of sleep. Xander wasn’t.

The TR scratched his neck, cheeks turning slightly redder. “I never went to sleep tonight. There was a bug in the engine software I had to deal with, and when I had solved that the alarm went off.”

“Hope that door doesn’t hit you in the back during the mission then”, said Cory.

Felicia turned to Haylen as he opened his locker and asked him how he was feeling, and that was where he had to turn on his heel and get to the toilet to throw up.

“Please don’t say you’re pregnant too”, Keith said as he went back to his locker. Never too tired to joke, was he.

Felicia didn’t ask more, thankfully. However, Cory did.

“I heard the stress test didn’t go so well. Should you really go on a mission right now? You look terrible.”

“Not your call, eh…” Haylen mumbled without looking at him, trying to the legplates in place.

“I was asking out of concern, but okay.” Haylen didn’t need to see him to know his eyebrows were raised in defense.

But before he came up with an answer, Cory left the changing room. Haylen leaned his head against the cool surface of the cabinet door, wishing he could stay there forever. Morgan briefly put a hand on his shoulder, giving it an encouraging rub as he walked past.

Felicia closed her locker as Haylen got a grip of himself again and continued with the armor pieces. “Hate to say it, but he got a point. Are you sure you’re good to go?”

He lifted his chin up, then looked at her.

She held up her hands. “Okay, okay.” She grabbed her helmet and weapon, waiting for him to get finished before they went to the shuttle hall.

– – –

The research station was located on a relatively safe area on UR22, a 1.2 G moon without atmosphere and with active cryovolcanoes. The two Terra teams had suffered casualties and was on their last air reserves, and still they hadn’t been able to breach the enemy defense line. Apparently, the Alpha Dawn group had brought more robotic toys. Not the troopers this time, but the smaller MG:s, Mechanical Guards. Less firepower, less sturdy, but hard to take out in a cramped area where you couldn’t use grenades.

Or when you couldn’t use the Tyrian Tank, Haylen thought as he forced down the last of the nutritional smoothie he had sipped on during the trip. Fortunately he’d been able to keep it all down. Another painkiller and forty five minutes of sleep, and he was almost back to normal. But there was the lingering shakiness and sensitivity to sounds, his reactions were slower, and he had orders not to use anything more than normal barriers.

It could’ve been worse, of course. Much worse. Still, it would’ve been neat not to have Cory’s silent doubt as a fucking flashlight in his face every time their eyes happened to meet. It was enough with his own. Even captain Avril hadn’t commented his general status this time, who was Cory to have opinions? Then again, Leon told him that there had been enough scolding from both the captain and the commander last night, when Haylen was blissfully asleep, to last for the whole mission.

As the team had gradually shook the sleep daze off during the transport, Xander was instead starting to yawn. Leon tossed him a few stim packs to wake up his brain later when it was time to hack MG:s.

They entered atmosphere and it was time to get ready.

“The plan is to join the Terra teams at the rendezvous points” captain Avril informed them. “They need to exchange air tanks so we’ll replace them for a while. Xander will continue their attempts to shut down the MG:s before we move in. If that fails, we’ll have to shoot our way through. There is air inside the station and so far the airlock is working. As per usual, you are not to remove your breather pieces until you get permission.”

“Time to show the Terrables how to deal with Alphas”, Keith grinned.

Haylen didn’t feel like smiling. Enter Task Force Ignis, eh, with its crippled prim duty team. Short of one soldier and half a frontliner, and the remaining half of said frontliner wasn’t even allowed to use his amp force properly… Haylen sighed and put his helmet on, clicking the breather piece in place.

It took Xander a good while to break into the system that controlled the MG:s, even with the progress made by the Terra TR:s. Meanwhile, the Ignis team held the claimed positions until the Terra team got back with fresh air tubes. The air inside the station was still good, but the officers were taking no risks. The Alpha Dawn might’ve been be a young organisation, but they had also shown that they could be reckless and, well. Rather dramatic. There was a risk they’d rather vent the station and die with their enemy than surrender.

This unit seemed to be a great deal more experienced and skilled one than the previous ones the Ignis teams had encountered. When the MG:s eventually were shut down, the teams were met with heavy gunfire as they advanced into the station. An intense fight followed, from which Paavo had to pull out of after taking a rather serious hit in the leg. Tianyi and Rashida were hit badly too, but since none of them got bleeding wounds they had to carry on.

It wasn’t until the remainders of the two Terra teams returned that they could finally turn the tides. At last, there was a desperate request for cease-fire from the Alpha Dawns, and one by one they left their weapons on the ground and crawled out of hiding with their hands in the air. Five of them were dead, another twenty one wounded, leaving only three of them physically unharmed. Those three were hiding in the station’s communication central, three scared witless teenagers who had been seduced by the rebel spirit only to realize that they weren’t prepared to die for this obscure cause at all.

“It’s just sad”, Felicia pondered as they were waiting for more reinforcements to take care of the Alpha Dawn-prisoners and the station crew. “Union research is already common property, their whole agenda is nothing but sheep shit.”

She kept her voice low, glancing at the prisoners in the room. They had been placed in the station canteen and in a conference room, guarded by the Ignis and the Terra team respectively. Leon and Nyree had patched their own soldiers up first, and were now taking care of the prisoners.

“They claim the Union is keeping information from us though”, Cory pointed out. “Which isn’t untrue, there’s a whole lot of things the public never gets to know.”

“Yes, I know, but that’s just common classified stuff. Some information need to be handled with care, right? But they always sound like people don’t get to know even the most basic stuff, like what minerals can be mined from what asteroid, and things like that.”

“What I don’t understand”, Morgan said, “is that if they are connected to the Federation, which they seem to be considering the jammers on that drone we encountered, why is free information so important to them? The Federation usually praises company secrets and the freedom of protecting and selling anything you possess.”

“Hey”, said Keith with a nod in the prisoners’ direction, and they all stopped talking since it was obvious the two closest ones tried to listen in.

Haylen felt a headache build up, and took a dose of the migraine meds just in case it wasn’t an ordinary one. Then he looked at Xander who was leaning at the wall next to him, eyes staring at absolutely nothing.

“Tired, Dots?”

Xander blinked and looked at him, forcing his eyes to stay open. “I’m sorry, what did you say? I think I was asleep.”

Haylen only smirked, shaking his head. “Sit down before you drop, private.”

The TR blinked again, then nodded slowly. “That’s a good idea. Very good idea.” Xander sank down on the floor and fell asleep in less than a minute.

And, in less than three minutes, reinforcements arrived, and it was time for the Ignis teams to leave. Haylen actually felt sorry for Xander as he had to wake him up again.

Narrow it down

Xander yawned, shifting position in his chair. The code section on the screen was without errors, as had been the case in all the sections he had gone through this far. In itself it was a good thing, of course. Only he was searching for a bug, and he had been doing it for hours without finding it.

Chief engineer Gervin knocked on the door frame and stepped in. The knocking was probably more to let Xander know he was coming in; it was the engineers’ computer room after all.

“How’s it going?” Gervin asked as he walked up to Xander, putting down a mug of tea next to him on the table.

“Oh, thank you. Well, nothing so far”, Xander answered, checking one of the programs he was running simultaneously, then took a sip of the hot tea. “I’ve narrowed it down to four sections at least. But it takes time.”

He stroked some hair behind his ear before it fell down in his face. Gervin sat down in the chair beside his, looking out at the engine hall through the thick window. Behind the control room window at the closest wall, they could see Malenka, who was on the night shift, watching the monitors.

“If you got it down to four sections, I’d say it’s been a quick work so far.”

“Malenka helped me ruling out a few sections too.” Xander continued scrolling through the lines of code on the screen, occasionally stopping to check pieces more carefully.

“You seem to know these engines almost as well as her by now. You’ve been here for how long? Six months?”

“Seven months next week.”

“Seven months? Time flies…”

Xander nodded slowly. Seven months was nothing for people like Gervin, who had years of service behind him, but for Xander it was the longest employment he’d had. “I didn’t think I’d last this long, honestly”, he admitted.

“You mean you didn’t think you’d manage?” Gervin sounded genuinely surprised. “You were a top student, weren’t you? Got hired before you even finished university.”

“Well…” Xander shifted in his seat, feeling his cheeks and ears getting warmer. “That’s what I mean. That job was on the ground. I didn’t have any experience from working on galaxy ships when I got here.”

Gervin smiled. “Normally, people who set their foot on a galaxy ship for the first time don’t have much experience from working on them.”

“Yes, I know, I just…” He trailed off.

“You’re doing fine, kid. And you don’t have to compensate for your lack of experience every time you open a digital system.”

Xander rubbed his neck, checking the programs again. “Yes, I know”, he said again, wishing the blush would go away.

It was probably the thousandth time he had a conversation like this. In a way, it made him suspect that other people thought he was excusing himself only to receive praise, but he couldn’t help it. The apologies just came out before he could stop them.

Gervin put his hands on his knees and stood up again. “I’m going to bed. Don’t sit up too late. That bug isn’t going to kill the engines if you leave it overnight.”

“I won’t, I promise”, Xander said as Gervin gave him a pat on the shoulder and left.

He had a feeling the chief engineer’s idea of ‘too late’ wasn’t as close to morning as his own, but he hated to leave a task unfinished. He had been called overachiever since pre-school, never letting something go once he got started, always striving to be the best – not only better than everybody else, but better than himself. Every time.

It was as if those results and grades and diplomas had no value in themselves. At least not if he knew that there was something he could have done better. His parents had been disappointed that he didn’t chose the military officer education, even if they hadn’t expressed it loud and clear. That he had gotten into the Armed Forces through the backdoor of science had subdued that disappointment somewhat, but he still wasn’t a real soldier in their eyes.

Not that he ever wanted to be. There were more ways to fight than guns, more ways to contribute than spilling blood. Xander wasn’t cut out to handle that kind of physical effort and stress, he had learned that as a toddler. He had been lucky to have teachers who let him develop and refine his skills in the digital area, and helped convincing his parents that this was best for him.

However, being on a galaxy ship and thus having a private’s rank in the AF, and a real soldier if only on paper, he should work on his weapon skills at least. The amps he had were supposed to compensate for his amputated hand first and most. They had been upgraded though, once he was done with the basic soldier training after being recruited by the AF. Now he could create larger and more powerful and flexible force fields, which was handy as well. He had proved that at the mine with the scale bears, when Haylen’s gun jammed.

But Xander still felt that he should know how to hit a target even when it was moving and he was under pressure. His amps hardly ever caused him any issues, but they were using energy as any other implants. They were also possible to tamper with, as the derailer at UC03 had done with Felicia.

The shooting session last night hadn’t given him much hope of a future career as a gunslinger though. He should try get some more time there to practise. Maybe ask someone to help him. Felicia and Keith were specialized in sniper guns of course and should know a great deal about it. Then again, maybe Xander would benefit more from training with someone who was using one-hand guns like himself. Like Morgan or Rashida. Or Haylen.

He blinked as his subconsciousness demanded his attention. Eyeing the screen over with intensified focus, he soon noted something strange in one of the code lines. With a triumphant “haha!” he started to debug the damaged section. Maybe he would be done with this closer to midnight than morning after all.

Stress test

“I think I’ll let you do this, sergeant,” doctor Eira said to Leon and handed him the small scanner pads. She might reach up to Haylen’s head with her hands, but she wouldn’t be able to see what she was doing.

They were in the training hall, about to do what was called a stress test. Amplifiers of any kind needed to be scanned regularly, to make sure the system worked as intended, that the paths were undamaged, and so on. The stress test scanned the amps while in use, testing response time, torrent capacity, searching for errors and disturbances in connections and signals.

Since the scanners interacted with the implants and therefore interfered with the brain-implant communication, as well as changing energy flows, it could affect the amped person in non-pleasing ways. Naturally, commander Nihad hadn’t been thrilled to have Haylen and Tianyi go through the tests while on prim duty, but Eira hadn’t had time until now and wanted to have a proper look at the soldiers’ implants before shore leave. Tianyi had passed her test before lunch without problem. Eira expected Haylen’s to be more straining.

Elite class implants like Haylen’s default T7 ones were a tad bit more complicated than ordinary amps. Usually, the neurolinks, enhancer units in the brain and spine, and the energy emitters attached to the skeleton composed a separate system that interacted with the brain and neurological system.

The T9-upgrades were made of materials of classified origin and composition, and integrated seamlessly with the body’s own tissues. It was supposed to make them more efficient, but for doctors of lesser pay grades like herself, it was obvious that it would make it much more difficult to single out problem areas, even more so to actually do anything about it.

While Leon attached the scanner pads to the connection spots behind Haylen’s ears, Eira set up the connection between her tablet and Haylen’s wristband. The soldier was standing still and patient, absent-mindedly looking at the floor.

Eira had finally gotten the official journals with 3D pictures of Haylen’s implants and transmitter paths from the medical archives. It was more of a bird’s nest than she had expected; the schematic pictures had been more tidy. After studying them more thoroughly, she had started to see the fine pattern of it all.

Still, she couldn’t shake the feeling that this wasn’t a job well done, even if you ruled out the discrepancy between schematics and reality. There was indications here and there that this integration had been made relying more on pure luck than actual skill.

“Did you make any implant scans at all while you were working for Praesidia?” Eira asked as she prepared the programs. She was still sour she hadn’t got any journals from that company doctor.

“One regular.”

“And how long since is that?”

Haylen had to think about that. “A year an’… three months.”

She raised her eyebrows, making a note of that. “He must’ve known it’s custom to do them every four months?”

“Probably.”

“So why didn’t he do it more often?”

“‘Cause I didn’ ask for it.”

“And why is that?” Eira tried to not sound condescending. She really did try.

“Didn’ see the point.”

Eira couldn’t help it. She went full condescending. “Surely there must be a point in getting to know if there was something wrong with your brain implants.”

“Wouldn’ gone to Praesidia if there wasn’, eh.” For the first time he looked at her properly.

Eira looked back, and sighed. “This isn’t the kind of problem that goes away if you ignore it.”

He closed his eyes briefly before turning his gaze away again, and there was no doubt this was him rolling his eyes at her without actually doing it. It annoyed her, of course, like it always annoyed her when grunts were too stubborn for their own good.

But stubbornness regarding health usually sprung from fear. There was a time for anger, and there was a time for compassion. Haylen was good at hiding it, but Eira didn’t need to see his pulse meter to know he was nervous. She could save the anger for later.

“Now, if you need a break during the test, or if you’re not feeling well, let me know. This is a stress test, not a passage rite.”

“Got it.”

“Good. You will simply activate each ability on my command, and keep it up until I say so. Leon will have the pleasure to do the sim shots when we’re testing the barriers.”

Leon held up the sim gun with a satisfied smile on his unshaven face; it did not qualify as a beard yet. “I love dis part of de job.”

Haylen looked at him, not exactly cheering him on. “Them needles you be stabbin’ us with, they not fun enough?”

“I don’ get to use guns den, kin.” Leon grinned slyly.

“That’ll be quite enough, children”, Eira said and started the scan. “Haylen, normal barrier, if you please.”

A faint shimmer around his body showed that the barriers were up. The data began to show up on her tablet. They went through the close combat abilities while he was maintaining the normal barriers, using a simulated target.

The ram, when he formed a force field gauntlet of sorts around one or both of his hands; the blade, which he had difficulties making sharp enough to cut the target with; the hook, which was basically an angled force field that was meant for shoving or dragging.

All the results were in the yellow spectre, the hook even turning them orange, and he only kept that one up for a few seconds. Eira made a note for herself on that.

“You may shoot him now, sergeant”, she said then, and Leon checked the settings on the sim gun before firing.

The sim gun produced small energy clusters, not unlike the shock bolts on the soldiers’ real guns, to mimic a real bullet’s impact on the barriers. Leon aimed at the critical points – head, chest, belly and thighs. The impacts caused ripples in the barriers, and Haylen winced somewhat at each hit, but the barriers remained intact.

“Let go of the barriers completely for a while”, Eira instructed. “How are you feeling so far?”

The last of the barrier vanished, and Haylen took a deep breath. “Fine.”

Eira peered at him, then studied his readings. A slight raise in body temperature, blood pressure and pulse. Nothing extraordinary, but enough to make him uneasy, she could tell as much. She nodded anyway, and skimmed through the test data. He had maintained the barriers without much trouble, but she noted some kind of distortion when he deactivated them.

“We’ll have to check up on that”, she told Leon, then put up a pre-programmed course of sim targets and obstacles for the next part. “Let’s continue with the charges and discharges.” She pointed at the targets that were placed with several meters between them, one about five meters up. They were lucky to have a training hall with enough height on this ship.

“With normal barriers activated, you attack each target combining leap and a suitable close combat ability. The targets should be able to withstand full force. If not, well. That wall need a paint job anyway.”

Leon chuckled, but Haylen was more focused on the targets than on her jokes. They watched Haylen clear one target after another, not extraordinary quickly perhaps, but very thoroughly. Eira had heard how he wrecked the mechanical trooper, and it was obvious that none of it had been exaggerations.

He kept a steady pace from start, but at the end of the course he slowed down between obstacles. The data shifted between yellow and orange, and his health chart was bordering on yellow.

“Dat frown be goin’ deeper, doc”, Leon pointed out quietly.

“If he claims to be ‘fine’ after this I will rinse his mouth with soap.”

Haylen jumped down from a plateau and slammed his fist into the last target as he landed next to it. He remained on one knee after that, glancing their direction.

“Thank you”, said Eira. “Now deactivate all abilities and catch your breath before we move on to the last part.”

As Haylen straightened up and slowly let force field gauntlet and barriers go, Eira pointed out some of the numbers on her tablet to Leon. “Do you see this, sergeant? Most of the T9 reports are classified, but the project physicians has admitted that this is one of the reason these T9 upgrades are causing so much trouble. Every connector in all sections has at least 10 percent failure. It’s not much for one or a few, but on all of them? You’ll never see numbers like this on standard implants.”

She looked at Leon who was looking at the tablet too, growing a frown of his own.

“Seems like de commands be un-synced”, Leon pondered.

“Where, you mean?” She looked at the results he pointed at.

“De activatin’ signals, dey be lingerin’ on de pat’s after de deactivation commands be given.”

“Huh. I didn’t see anything like that in the journals I got. It might be good news, if it’s a later error.”

Haylen walked back to them. He looked weary, rubbing his forehead above his left eye.

“Talk to me, corporal”, she urged him calmly.

“Aches a bit”, he said, taking down his hand.

“Look at me.”

He did as he was told. She eyed him critically, trying to decide if the ‘aches a bit’ was an understatement or pure lie.

“Are you feeling good enough to continue with the extended barriers?” she asked eventually.

“Yeah.” His gaze seemed steady enough.

“Are you sure?”

He looked at her with a hint of irritation.

“Very well then, corporal”, she said. If they could get angry, they were good to go a little while longer.

It was a similar procedure as with the normal barriers, but now without any other ability usage. Eira could tell Haylen was struggling now, even without the health chart throwing yellow numbers in her face.

He managed to stop most of the shots fired at him or the barrier this time as well, but one breached it. The energy cluster hit him in the thigh and made him take a step backwards, but he kept the barrier up and the rift closed in a second.

Eventually, the scan was complete. Haylen was even more out of breath now than after the obstacle course, and after he had dropped the barrier Eira noticed his right hand and forearm was twitching irregularly, if very slightly.

“That was all of it, corporal”, Eira said as she ran the finishing commands on the program. “How about you lie down for a while, until we can take the scanner pads off.”

At least he showed the good judgement to do as she suggested this time, with Leon as support. “I promise you’ll get a painkiller once we’re done”, she said, glancing down at him where he lay on his back with his palms pressed to his forehead, knees pulled up. That twitching worried her. That, and the fact that his pulse still wasn’t slowing down.

“There we go”, she said as the program ended. “Sergeant, you can…-”

“Doctor”, Leon interrupted her.

She looked down, instantly cautious. Haylen’s hands were dropping, his eyes were half-open but unfocused, darting irregularly. She kneeled down on his other side, her knees protesting as they tended to do.

“Haylen? Are you alright?”

Leon looked warily at Haylen as well. The soldier didn’t answer. Instead, his eyes went glassy, and he clenched his jaws together a couple of times. Eira put her tablet away the same moment the screen flashed a red frame around the basic data stream.

“He’s having a seizure. Time’s… 17:34.”

Without his face expression changing much, Haylen’s head turned to the right while his body tensed and followed, arms and legs contracting slightly as he began to tremble all over. She released straps and buttons around waist and neck on his uniform, while Leon held his head so he wouldn’t hurt himself.

“Wan’ me get a muscle relaxer?”

“Not unless this goes on too long.”

The convulsions became stronger, and soon shifted character, from being more tremble-like to be more spasm-like. His throat was more or less clamped shut, and his lips were turning blue, but before three minutes had passed, the spasms started to wear off. Eira and Leon helped turning him over on the side properly.

Eventually, stray twitchy breaths forced themselves through Haylen’s tense throat, and the color of his lips and cheeks turned back to normal as the breathing got more even.

Eira glanced at the tablet. The chart was still registering brain activity out of the normal. She looked at Haylen again, finding a clean tissue in her coat so she could wipe off the saliva mixed with blood that had trickled down from the corner of his mouth.

As the soldier slowly came to, he tried to move, whether it was to get up or turn around, but Eira and Leon held him down gently.

“Lie down for a little longer, corporal”, she said, “you had a seizure and I want you to rest for a bit.”

She wasn’t sure he heard or understood her yet. He blinked, trying to focus, trying to move again. Her hand remained on his shoulder.

“It’s alright, Haylen. Take it easy. Just lie still for now, if you’ll be so kind.”

Eira looked at Leon, who was sitting on the other side, waiting patiently. “We’ll let him sleep this off at the patient’s ward later, so I can keep an eye on him.”

She tried to make eye contact with Haylen again. “How are you feeling, corporal?”

He met her gaze, with difficulty, and swallowed. “Tired”, he mumbled.

“I guessed as much. You just had a seizure. You’re fine, but I understand you’re a little groggy now. We’ll help you to a bed, when you think you can move. Do you know what date it is?”

She had to ask twice before getting an answer. She made him give her name, rank and number as well before she decided he was conscious enough. A few more minutes of rest, then she and Leon helped him to the med bay.

Once they got Haylen to a bed, Eira gave him the promised painkillers, and he fell asleep immediately. She put his health chart up on her desk screen, while Leon made sure he hadn’t bitten himself too badly.

Eventually Eira sank down in her chair with a sigh, Leon joining her at the desk after washing his hands.

“This only confirmed what we already knew about the cause of the seizures”, she stated, “but after the analysis is done, we might find something that we can work with to actually prevent them. Like syncing the signals. If that’s even doable, considering the royal mess in his head.” She leaned back, pulling a face of displease. “Why isn’t every implants like Tianyi’s…”

Leon smiled, his hazel eyes glittering. “You an’ me’d be out of work den, doc.”

That might be the situation soon anyway, Eira thought to herself, when captain Avril gets to know about this.

Out of hands

One week left until shore leave. The team would have a week off, then they would all have personal schedules for a couple of weeks. Some were going back to the base at Sol’s Ward for education and practising, some were going on various guarding or patrolling duties on their home colonies. It all depended on what the colonies demanded and what the commander thought was needed.

Haylen had orders to be at the Sol’s Ward base for amp training and a crash course in modern military knowledge or something similar. He didn’t exactly look forward to any of it, especially not that second part, but he didn’t have much say in it. At least the time at Sol’s Ward would give him an opportunity to catch up with Ziva.

If she wanted to. They hadn’t talked or written to each other since Haylen left for UGS Ignis.

There was some motivation for the amp training though. The talk with the captain earlier hadn’t been very encouraging, but at least she had been honest. No promises, no smooth-overs. Simply showing him her cards. He hadn’t been thrown overboard yet. Still a chance to take control over these damn amps.

Except for the follow-up talks with captain Avril, they had all been busy with various maintenance duties the whole day. Now they were having dinner before the shooting practise. Felicia just sat down with the other team 1-members with her tray of food. She was late; the rest of them were almost done eating.

“I just texted with Santo”, she said while she stuffed her mouth with fish and carrots.

“You got a connection finally?” asked Morgan and looked up at her, expectantly.

“Yeah but it took forever to send and receive”, Felicia answered, her words muffled by food.

“What did he say?” asked Keith, who was absent-mindedly touching a bruise on his face. It was barely visible since his skin was so dark, but there was still a swelling. The close combat training yesterday had been… enthusiastic. At least Tianyi’s left hook hadn’t started another war between them.

“That his legs are healing as they should and that he’s feeling alright, more or less. But I mean, he’s not able to walk for a while and he’s kind of low at the moment, I caught that much.”

“I wonder if his feet could have been saved if he had been cut loose instead of pulled out”, Cory mused from his side of the table. He always managed to place himself so he could hear what team 1 was talking about.

Haylen decided not to answer that, even if it was clear that it was directed at him and nobody else; he was the one who had freed Santo. He focused on mixing the rest of the fish with whatever gravy he had left. Simone was a good cook but even she couldn’t turn fish into anything that wasn’t fish.

Felicia inhaled in a way that meant she was going to counterattack Cory, but surprisingly enough, Morgan was the one coming to Haylen’s defense this time.

“You weren’t there Cory, there wasn’t really time to be surgical.”

“I thought you were passed out most of the time?” Cory sounded as innocent as ever.

“And I would’ve been dead if Haylen hadn’t got Santo out so Felicia could shoot the centipede.”

Cory shrugged. “If you say so.”

“They’re pretty good at integrated prosthetics these days though.” Xander said, maybe attempting to ease the tension. He sat in front of Haylen, and lifted his left hand, waving his fingers.

Haylen tilted his head a bit to the side, looking at the hand.

“Never noticed. Which… be your point, I guess.”

“Well, yes. It was.” Xander smiled awkwardly.

“How much of it?”

“It goes up to just below the elbow. I’m one of the first on UC01 born with infant mortification. They had to amputate it at once.”

“Ew”, said Tianyi, “I hate that word.”

“Mortification?” Morgan said, looking at Xander with a frown.

“Yes”, Tianyi answered even if it was obvious Morgan was talking to Xander.

“I thought all those who were missing limbs from birth simply didn’t have them, not that it was mortification”, Morgan continued.

“I said ‘ew, I hate that word’”, Tianyi said and leaned forward so she could spell it out directly to Morgan’s face. He just smiled and pushed her head away.

“That’s another syndrome”, Xander explained. “The infant mortification…-” Tianyi made a disgusted noise again. Xander paused with a little smile, then continued. “This syndrome is less common, but since people tend to find it appalling, it’s easier to just say you’re born without a hand or foot or whatever.”

“And we’re all very grateful”, said Tianyi, drinking the rest of her water.

“Can they put prosthetics on infants?” Keith asked. “Won’t you have to switch them every other month if so? And aren’t they like, really tiny?” He measured with thumb and index finger, squinting.

“I didn’t get my first until I was five, but yes. They have to be switched as you grow. And upgraded or exchanged once in a while. But this one I’m supposed to have for some years now.”

“That means you stopped growing?” asked Tianyi. “Thank the gods for that, you’re obscenely tall.”

“He got a perfect height”, Haylen said, as he checked the time. They had four minutes until shooting session started. They better get ready.

“Well you’re biased, you mutated mammoth tree”, Tianyi replied.

“Ever considered the option that you might be obscenely short?” Keith asked as he stood up with his empty tray, a mocking smile on his face.

“I’m exactly the height I was meant to have, more would be a waste of flesh”, she said, and as Haylen stood up in his full length, taking his tray too, she added: “As you can see on some other people here.”

He looked at her. She smiled widely with closed lips at him. So he just smirked a bit and went to leave his tray, giving Xander and Felicia a brief look as he walked around the table. The TR was looking another direction, blushing for some unknown reason. Felicia on the other hand had an innocent smile on her face as she gave Xander a pat on the arm and left the table as well.

Before he made it to the shooting range, doctor Eira caught him in the corridor.

“Tomorrow, after whatever it is you lunatics do before dinner, we’ll do the stress test. Then you can rest after if you have to. Don’t show up starving, but don’t come completely full either.”

“Got it”, he said.

She peered at him. “You were hoping I had forgotten about it, weren’t you?”

He pointed the other direction. “I goin’ be late.”

“Shoo then”, she said, waving him off while walking away herself.

Another thing to not look forward too. But there was one more day left for her to forget it on, right.

Evaluation: Haylen

Avril wasn’t used to feel small. With her one eightyfive, she had been matched only by Paavo, Jamal and Talus on this ship so far. Then Haylen signed on. It was silly, of course, but she had always found it weird to look up on a soldier instead of down.

“So, corporal. How do you think you’re doing so far?” She sat down after him.

He met her gaze with that delusive calm that made her think of a cat staring down a prey, its tail the only thing moving.

“Alright”.

He surely didn’t waste any words, did he…

“Care to elaborate?” She leaned her elbow on the desk.

Haylen looked aside, thinking for a few moments. “I’m keepin’ up on the whole. Added some, drew some.”

“You’re talking mostly about your amps, right?”

“Yeah.”

“I’ll have you go through a stress test before we go on shore leave. I’m thinking it might help narrow things down.”

Haylen nodded, silently.

Avril’s eyes narrowed slightly. The stress tests were only performed when there was indications something wasn’t as it should be. They involved a great deal of discomfort, and they left you drained for hours after. Even Avril, who practically had no negative side effects from her amp usage at all, used to be sick from them. Whenever stress tests were scheduled, amped soldiers tended to express their dislike loud and clear. No one simply nodded in silence.

“Did you go through any while you were working for Praesidia?”

“No.”

“So it’s been a while. I hope you remember how it felt.”

“Hard to forget.” Still not giving off if this made him nervous or not.

She didn’t buy this. He had barely batted an eye at anything they encountered so far. Even when suffering from the occasional backlashes he hadn’t lost his composure entirely. Either it was all an act from his side, or they had disconnected his emotions when they squeezed in all those implants.

Avril changed subject.

“What do you think of your team?”

“Good.”

She raised an eyebrow.

He tilted his head to the side a little, eyeing the wall behind her before answering. “Efficient, competent.”

It had to count as elaboration, she must admit that.

“You seem to keep to yourself a lot. Is that voluntarily?”

“Yeah.”

“How come?”

Haylen looked aside again. Avril started to wonder if he just picked a random negative or positive answer, then improvised if he had to explain it.

“Not much of a small talker, I guess.” He shrugged some.

“No shit.”

Haylen looked back at her, steadily. Avril knew he was physically able to smile. Then again, so was she. That didn’t mean they had to.

“Well, I suppose none of you think of it as problem anyway. Did you find it hard to re-adjust?”

He looked a bit puzzled. “What, to the armed forces?”

“Yes.”

“Not really.”

Avril tapped her finger against the desk. Then she asked: “Why didn’t you stay after the T9 program was shut down?”

For the first time, she noticed tension.

“Only job they offered was in maintenance. Ground duty.”

She peered at him. “What’s wrong with being in maintenance?”

“Nothin’. Jus’ not my kind of thing.”

“You’d rather spend your days fighting, you mean?”

“Somethin’ like that.”

She couldn’t really blame him. She also couldn’t really refrain from wrinkling her nose at his choice of occupation after the AF. “I suppose that’s why you chose Praesidia of all companies too? Because you knew that with them, there would be a lot of fighting?”

Haylen didn’t say ‘yes’ straight out, but the short cocking of the head had to count as affirmative. Avril didn’t need to have a psychology degree to understand this was a sensitive subject.

As much as she wanted to poke that further, she decided to drop it for now.

“Until next tour I will find a replacement for Santo. He’ll recover but it’s unlikely he’ll be back on this position. What we encountered on UR06…” She paused. Giving praise was tricky. To find the balance, not exaggerating, not diminishing. Telling someone off was much easier. “I can honestly say that without your skills, we would have lost two soldiers there.”

Haylen looked at her without saying anything. Waiting for the next part, probably. Which had to be spoken out as well.

“I was against recruiting you to this ship, because of what those skills might cost us. I’ve also yet to see how you hold up during a kryvat surge. From my point of view, you still haven’t proven your worth.”

He didn’t object, didn’t start defending himself, only looked back impassively.

“That said, it’s in both our interests that you find a balance”, she continued. “My job is to make sure my team performs, and that includes keeping my soldiers at their best. It’d be misconduct not to help you. That requires that you cooperate of course. That you’re honest with me and the medics. That won’t be a problem, will it?”

“No captain.”

“Good. Anything you have in mind right now? About anything at all?”

Haylen looked at the floor, thinking, but eventually shook his head. “No.”

“Well. You know where to find me. Dismissed.”

Alone again, Avril looked at the photo of Whacky on the wall. When she was in her late teens and applied for the AF, she thought that shepherding and being in command of a military unit wasn’t so different from each other. It was all about keeping people in place, making them move in one direction, and eventually let them all do what they were meant to do.

Reality was, as always, completely different. Even sheep had personalities. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that humans had too. Or that they would be far more complicated. Yet here she was, leading troops for twelve years and counting, and still the most common question in her head was ‘how the hell am I supposed to deal with these people?’.

Whacky’s sheep eyes peered back at her. Not much help there. Avril snorted, giving the lamb a brief pat with her fingertip, then sat down to finish some reports that should’ve been handed in two days ago. Shepherds had masters too.